With a narrow edge in the popular vote and a decisive victory in the Electoral College, President Barack Obama has secured a second term. His 2008 coalition of younger voters, African Americans, Latinos, and college-educated women proved remarkably resilient despite four years of high unemployment, anemic economic growth, and ceaseless obstructionism from political opponents. While Democrats have increased their majority in the Senate, the House remains firmly in Republican hands. Whether the confrontational, bitter, and paralyzing politics of the Tea Party will continue to frustrate government action is the most pressing question facing the nation. Responsible members of both parties acknowledge that a long-term budget deal, one that gets entitlement spending under control but also increases tax revenue, is necessary both for the health of the economy and for restoring confidence in the nation’s political institutions.
When this now lame-duck Congress convenes for its final session next week, the government will immediately have to grapple with the so-called fiscal cliff. Unless Congress and the president come to a budget agreement, draconian cuts in domestic and military spending and across-the-board tax increases will go into effect on January 1. (Republicans demanded this “deal” in return for raising the national debt ceiling in 2011.) Economists warn that going over the cliff could send the nation back into recession. The president has indicated he is willing to restructure programs such as Medicare and Social Security, but not unless Republicans agree to let the Bush tax cuts expire for those making more than $250,000. Obama wants to preserve tax cuts for those earning less than $250,000 and extend the payroll tax cut in order to get money into the hands of those most likely to spend it. Republicans have refused to consider raising taxes on even the wealthiest Americans. How this numbingly familiar standoff will be resolved remains unclear.
A temporary budget might pass, postponing the reckoning until later in 2013. Or Obama might allow the cuts to start taking effect and then strike a deal with the new Congress. If the Bush tax cuts expire, everyone’s taxes will go up. Republicans would then be able to vote for tax cuts for middle-class Americans without violating their pledge not to raise anyone’s taxes. For their part, Democrats could hold the line against tax cuts for the wealthiest but agree to other tax cuts and more modest reductions in spending.
There are some critics even within his own party who worry that Obama has not prepared the American people for the tough choices ahead. As the baby boomers continue to retire, the cost of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will climb to unsustainable levels if adjustments are not made. Costs will have to be more broadly shared, and the president will have to explain why and how that will happen.
In many respects, the interminable presidential campaign seems only to have made that reckoning more difficult. Too long, too expensive, and too short on substantive debate, the campaign failed to clarify the nation’s most urgent issues.
Yet some important questions have been answered. Because Obama was re-elected, the Affordable Care Act—vociferously and mistakenly opposed by the U.S. bishops—will not be repealed. Forty million uninsured Americans will now have access to health care. Although much more needs to be done, the Dodd-Frank Act (.pdf) will begin the process of more effectively regulating the financial industry. Like the bailout of the auto industry, these signature achievements of the Obama administration have been affirmed by the president’s re-election, sending a clear signal that Americans still want government to solve problems.
Among those who should be chastened by this election are the U.S. Catholic bishops. There is little evidence that Catholics or others were persuaded by the bishops’ arguments against the ACA or its contraception mandate, let alone their exaggerated claims about threats to religious freedom. Voters also dealt the bishops’ ongoing campaign against same-sex marriage a series of setbacks. Perhaps it is time for the bishops, like the Republican Party, to rethink their increasingly confrontational approach to divisive social and political questions (see “Morbid Symptoms”). In light of Obama’s re-election, a change in tone and style would be both gracious and shrewd. The bishops might even try modeling what a more civil political discourse should look like. As for the president, victory should bring magnanimity. In his election-night speech, he eloquently said that his opponents have taught him to be a better president. Exempting religious institutions such as universities and hospitals from the ACA’s contraception mandate would be a dramatic way to show what he has learned from those who in good conscience object to his policies. Providing health care for those who need it most should unite, not divide, religious institutions and a democratic government.